Over the past two days, we have been busy time catching up with old friends and visiting old places.
We stopped for our first night at a hotel near Windsor which was only 30 minutes, or so, from Heathrow. We enjoyed a hot shower and were ready for an early night after travelling 26 hours straight through from Melbourne.
Yesterday, our day began by catching up with our friends Ross and Carol. Ross worked with me at Control Data during the 1980’s as a sales manager and then manager of the company’s operations in New Zealand. Over the years, he has been a great mentor, client and friend. He and Carol are currently spending some extended time in England helping their son run his foreign exchange business.
We planned to meet up for coffee at Hughenden Manor. This estate was once the home of Benjamin Disraeli – the British Prime Minister during Queen Victoria’s time. It is a National Trust property and while the manor was closed for use as a film set for a new Agatha Christie movie, the gardens were still open to the public. Whilst we enjoyed each other’s company in the cafe, I have to say that I was disappointed as the grounds of the manor were completely cluttered with trucks, vans, lighting towers, mobile toilets and even a van for the set medic.
After driving to the very cute little village of Cookham, we continued our catch up over lunch at the old ‘Ball and The Dragon’ hotel. We had a delightful meal in this cute pub which operates in a building that dates from 1420. People were doing things here 350 years before Australia was discovered by Europeans. Amazing! They were certainly not as tall as we are today. I couldn’t stand up straight in some of the older areas of the building.
Before moving on to our overnight destination near Salisbury, we stopped off at Clivedon Manor for a look at the grounds of this estate on the upper Thames River. It is an Italianate mansion and estate by the hilltop village of Taplow, and just a couple of miles from the riverside town of Maidenhead. The site has been home to an earl, three countesses, two dukes, a Prince of Wales and the Viscounts Astor. The property is now owned by the National Trust although the house is rented to a hotel company. The grounds are spectacularly laid out with formal designs and parterres.
It took us nearly two hours to drive to Amesbury in some heavy traffic (just north of Salisbury) where we will position ourselves for the next five days to explore Wiltshire and surrounds. I am reminded just how fast people in England drive. At home, I would get pinged for speeding if I exceeded the speed limit by just a few kmh. Here, I found myself driving 10 mph over the 60 mph speed limit on the motorway and I was the slowest car on the road!
Today, we drove the few miles south to Salisbury to visit its famous Cathedral.
Just north of Salisbury, we came across the location of Old Sarum. This is the site of the earliest settlement of Salisbury. Stonehenge and the Avebury stone circles were erected nearby and are indications of prehistoric settlement from as early as 3000 BC. An Iron Age hill fort was erected at Sarum around 400 BC to control the intersection of two native trade routes. The site continued to be occupied during the Roman period. The Saxons captured the British fort there in the 6th century and later used it as a stronghold against marauding Vikings. The Normans constructed a castle, a stone curtain wall, and a great cathedral. A royal palace was built within the castle for King Henry I.
This heyday of the settlement lasted for around 300 years until disputes between the Wiltshire sheriff and the Salisbury bishop finally led to the removal of the church into the nearby plain. As New Salisbury grew up around the construction site for the new cathedral in the early 13th century, the buildings of Old Sarum were dismantled for stone and the old town dwindled. Its long-neglected castle was abandoned by Edward II in 1322 and sold by Henry VIII in 1514. The outline of the cathedral can still be seen on the ground.
The ‘new’ Cathedral at Salisbury is very grand. Its steeple stands out as a landmark across the plain for many miles – it is fact, the tallest church spire in the UK. The foundation stone was laid in 1220 and the main body of the cathedral was completed in only 38 years,( from 1220 to 1258). The cathedral has the best surviving of the four original copies of Magna Carta (all four original copies are in England).
During our visit, the church was full of groups of school children on an excursion to study either history or religious education. One group was spending the morning here and then going off in the afternoon to visit a nearby mosque. It’s great to see this type of building full of life and chatter rather than remaining just a quiet and sombre memorial to those who built it. The congregation had just celebrated their harvest festival, so the church was extensively decorated with flowers and produce.
We joined the National Trust in Australia before leaving home as the UK NT provides reciprocal free entry. So far we have saved about $100 in entry fees to the properties that we have visited. We saw a place called ‘The Figsbury Ring’in my iPhone National Trust App as being nearby and we found it up a narrow lane at the top of a hill about 4 miles from Salisbury.
The National Trust describe it as “An unusually designed Iron Age hill fort, containing a smaller central, possibly Neolithic, enclosure. It provides exceptional views from the ramparts over Salisbury Plain, Old Sarum and Salisbury Cathedral. The ramparts also act as a refuge for unusual plants. In late spring and summer experience, a carpet of wild flowers including orchids, the air filled with insects and the song of skylarks”.
I din’t see any wildlife (other than a few cows) and instead of skylarks, I could only hear the barking of dogs as people let them loose for a run. Both of the historical places we visited today have been popular with dog walkers. It wasn’t the most exciting place to visit but it did offer a chance to walk and to see some of the countryside from a high vantage point.
Our final destination for the day was to Mottisfont – an old priory that was turned into a country estate house in the 1920’s by a woman named Maude Russell. I’ve never heard of her, but apparently she was quite a diva – a patron of the arts who held all sorts of wild soirees at the house. She is reputed to have had many lovers.
I normally set my GPS to take me on the fastest route, as in England it then takes you on a route that avoids towns and city traffic. However, yesterday, I was using the ‘shortest route’ setting. As a result, our way back to our hotel took us down narrow country lanes (still occupied by people driving very fast on roads that were just wide enough for two vehicles) and through some gorgeous little villages. I couldn’t help but stop for a few photos of cute cottages, some with thatched roofs.